Cameron Denson can’t wait to be an Arizona Wildcat.
Seven weeks to the day after the Salpointe Catholic senior led the Lancers to their first football state championship at Arizona Stadium, the UA verbal commit for football returned to his future campus and led Salpointe to a 63-49 blowout win over Sahuaro at McKale Center in the nightcap of Saturday’s MLK Classic.
Denson made five three-pointers and scored a game-high 28 points in the win, not counting the celebratory two-handed dunk he threw down after time ran out.
“This is just like home to me,” Denson said. “I couldn’t do it without my teammates, they played hard out there and we played good defense.
“It just means a lot to me be out there on UA’s court with them being No. 1 in the nation right now. Just being on the same court as them is like an honor. It’s a great atmosphere and a big stage.”
The Lancers, ranked third in Division II heading into the game, definitely made a case to be the top team in Southern Arizona and maybe in the entire division statewide.
“That was a big win, it gives a lot of momentum heading toward the playoffs,” said junior Jaylyn Juan, who scored eight points and pulled in 10 rebounds. “The energy and hustle we brought from the start was good.”
Salpointe (14-5) jumped out early and never looked back against No. 2 Sahuaro. It led 19-7 at the end of the first quarter and 36-18 at the half.
“We wanted to come out and make a statement for the rest of the city and the state to show we can compete with anybody,” Denson said. “It was just a good, quality team win.”
Salpointe, which made it to the Division II state championship game last year, showed plenty of experience being on the big stage and gave plenty of reason to believe it could be back in the state finals next month.
“We just showed seniority and experience,” Salpointe coach Brian Holstrom said. “I wrote that big on the board before the game.”
Denson set the tone early for Salpointe when he sank a buzzer-beating three-pointer from the top of the key to close out the first quarter. If that wasn’t the play of the game, it had to be the two-handed jam by Sahuaro junior Nate Renfro had midway through the fourth quarter, cutting Salpointe’s lead to 56-41.
Although the dunk ignited the lively Sahuaro student section, and drew a technical foul from Denson after the play, it didn’t deter the Lancers.
Holstrom was especially happy with his team’s physical defensive play Saturday night. But, while the win was definitely big, he wasn’t ready to say it proved Salpointe is the best team in the area.
“There’s a lot of very good teams and there’s a lot of basketball to be played,” Holstrom said. “We stress process. This is one power point game and they’re a very good team but they’re going to rebound and they’re going to be better.
“Our goal is to carry the momentum and keep getting better.”
Sahuaro (17-4) had won 16 of its past 17 contests, but it never secured a foothold in the game Saturday, falling behind 21-9 less than 10 minutes in.
"We played pretty well, it was just that first quarter that killed us,” said senior Arthur Gibson, who had 10 points on the night. “We came out and we didn't have enough energy or hustle on both ends — both on the boards and taking shots on offense."
The loss was the Cougars first of the regular season — they won their first 11 — but they never even put a scare into the Lancers, trailing by as many as 21 points in the third quarter.
While the outcome was already decided long before, Sahuaro did outscore Salpointe 31-27 in the second half and Cougars coach Jim Henry said the final 16 minutes showed they have the ability to play with top teams in the division, just Saturday wasn’t their night.
"We just got pushed around a bit in that first half,” Henry said. “We came out in the second half and played a lot better, a lot tougher. But we dug ourselves a really big hole in the first half and it was just a little too much for us to overcome."
Sahuaro biggest struggles came from deep as the Cougars hit just two three-pointers despite shooting from distance throughout the game.
"What I got mostly from this is that we have more to grow," Gibson said. "Just in that first quarter alone we have such improvement to be made upon our overall play. We need to play 32 minutes a game."